The Scale of Victims

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It sure seems there’s a lot of IT security breaches lately. In fact, it’s to the point where I can’t remember which one inspired this column. It’s probably just as well, since you can map whatever horrific violation of privacy you heard of this week onto this column. There, I’ve sort of written something relatively timeless because people are dumb.

One of the things I wonder about is why more CTOs, CIOs, and so forth aren’t being taken to court, followed by reporters, and in general held freaking responsible for their companies having lousy security. Yes there’s all sorts of shielding from accountability, but you think we’d see some effort, but I think one thing protecting them is that the company is seen mostly as a victim.

I’d argue that’s technically right, the companies were attacked by some external force. But treating companies as equivalent of people ignores their responsibilities. People, individual moral agents, can be victims, but corporations are not people and not moral agents, and treating them as victims like people lets them out of responsibilities. Sorry, Mitt Romney.

Think about a person who is a victim of a crime. Though people often try to blame victims, those blamers are usually both wrong and assholes (and sometimes justifying their own crimes). A person who is victim of a crime is a victim in that someone else chose to behave criminally.. Even if said victim enhanced their own danger it doesn’t remove the culpability of the criminal, who violated social and legal norms that people are expected to follow.

When I watch people shrug as corporation after corporation has customer records placed on the dark web, I see comments about how crappy their security is, but it doesn’t seem particularly judgmental. This impresses me as an echo of the don’t-blame-the-victim mentality.

But corporations are groups of people – organizations. That organization makes certain agreements and promises in order to exist. Security of data is, obviously, part of them. If one’s data is breached, despite the criminals actions, you also take responsibility as you are responsible. If you’re leadership, you should be on the line because you made a promise that this probably won’t happen.

Organizations are about promises and responsibility. Screw that up, and no matter why, someone has to pay as your failure hurt the organization and the people involved. You don’t have to restrain yourself on going after the people who did the actual crime, but corporations have made promises. If you can’t keep them, you’ve got a problem.

In fact, I’d say a corporation that suffers a data breach or similar failure must be investigated to see if it violated social norms. If the corporation made guarantees it could not and did not keep, if good faith effort was not made, the corporation was responsible. There is a failure of the company that echoes the action of the criminal, it too violated norms.

Of course we all know that if we at all ask this we’ll find a lot of corporations have done terrible at security. It’s all cost cutting, half-assed integration, and big bonuses. A lot of companies, if they were really investigated for security problems, would be locked down and sold off for being terrible.

(And yes, I work in Healthcare, which has insanely strict rules, but everyone should for everything, and we remember that these rules protect people.)

We don’t need to act like corporations are victims like people. If they can’t keep their promises, if security violations reveal they’ve done a poor job of protecting people, they’re part of the problem. Some of them should pay. Some shouldn’t exist.

Steven Savage